Last Thursday was the 20th Anniversary of the legendary Nintendo 64 video game console. Widely hailed for its power, innovation, and extensive library, it’s most beloved for the great memories people made playing games like Goldeneye 007, Mario Kart 64, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
The Zelda game in particular is well-regarded as one of the best video games; and every year at E3 (the biggest gaming convention of the year, where gaming companies show off what they have just finished and how quickly you can give them all your money for the shiny new things you have just seen), people are on the lookout for the next Ocarina of Time. A few weeks ago at E3, one of the shiny new things was a demo of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild– the next installment of the Zelda franchise, scheduled to be released sometime early in 2017.
You could say that I am a fan of the series. As I write this, I can look down at the back of my hand and see three triangles known to many a videogame nerd as the symbol for the Triforce. And listening to the announcement, it struck me that one of the qualities being discussed a lot for this next episode of the series is a cryptic story that could be overlooked entirely, even after beating the game. It reminded me of when I first met The Legend of Zelda.
I was born in 1985, a year before the original Legend of Zelda was released. I was given a Nintendo Entertainment System by my parents when I was about 7 years old, bundled with Super Mario Bros. 3 and a couple of controllers. As most of us old enough to own a pair of nostalgia goggles can attest to, the first experience is usually the “best” and everything after is diminished in some way compared to our initial encounter.
Zelda was not my first video game; it was not immediately clear to me, it was not instantly the greatest thing I had ever seen as a boy, and I don’t feel like I have overly emotional devotion to it or feel super protective of that game or my memories of it. So why would there be a symbol synonymous with this series permanently etched into the skin of my right hand?
First, we need to go over the tropes and themes of the series. The protagonist, Link, is usually found sleeping or otherwise unaware, when he is thrust into a grand adventure of magic, swordplay, archery, puzzles, treasure, maps, compasses, hearts, rupees, dungeons, giant monster battles and enough gadgets to make James Bond envious.
The first game really starts with our hero standing in a field with nothing but the clothes on his back, an unnatural amount of courage, and his sense of justice. If he wanders into the nearest cave, he encounters an old man flanked by fires that offers a bit of sage advice and a weapon: “IT’S DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE! TAKE THIS.” he says. Lying on the ground in front of him is a sword.
I would not suggest hiding in fiery caves or giving out weapons to young people when you reach your golden years, but in this case it works out for the best for the princess Zelda, the nation of Hyrule, and Link himself. If you read the game manual (that I don’t remember having) you learn some important things: An old woman named Impa has been saved by Link from “a fate worse than death” at the hands of Ganon’s henchmen before the game starts. She is the nursemaid to Princess Zelda, who broke a mythical golden artifact into 8 pieces to keep it from Ganon, an evil prince of darkness who would use its power to rule the land by plunging it into darkness and fear. Impa tells Link she was sent to find someone with the courage to collect those pieces, in order to gain the power of the Triforce of Wisdom. Only then can he fight Ganon and his newly-acquired Triforce of Power, stopping his vast army and his ascent to rule the land.
Zelda for the NES was, and still is, a solid game. It was innovative by letting you explore a vast, non-linear world on the early console, and it was also the first console game to allow you to save your progress for later. But without the backstory, I was just fumbling around a large game world, figuring out how to navigate it through trial and error and using some cryptic clues and leaps in logic to make at least some sort of story out of it.
Focusing My Nostalgia Goggles
Almost a decade after this game came out, I saved up my money from allowance and odd jobs to buy myself a Nintendo 64 system with Mario Kart 64 and, later, Super Mario 64. Two years later, a game came out called The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I had recently signed up for a monthly gaming magazine that had a review of the unreleased game and after seeing the 3D rendered world in the magazine’s shiny pages and reading all the things you would be able to do, I was immediately smitten.
Back when I was little, my parents liked to ask us what we wanted for Christmas. I would usually make a whole list of things I really liked around the time they asked, but this year I only wrote down one thing – Ocarina of Time. My mother took me aside and said that if I was given a $60 game, that would mean I would get only one present from my parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents since they would all have to pitch in for it.
I was more than excited that she was telling me it was a possibility at all!
That Christmas was spent in Houston with my mother’s side of the family, almost a full day’s drive away from our home in northern Indiana. So when I opened my gift and thanked everyone for making my dream come true it was bittersweet, because now I had to wait – not only the days before we started to drive back home, but also that 20 hour ride back home to my Nintendo 64 – before I could enjoy it. I held that game box in a deathgrip, as if the closer it was to me or the tighter I squeezed, the more enjoyment might trickle out of it like a damp sponge.
When I finally put the cartridge in the system and turned it on I savored every moment. Even of the start-up screen, with its background animation and music.
My nostalgia goggles are set to HIGH right now, but Link and his adventure truly were so much more immersive to me than what I remembered in the first game. The screen filled with words that let me know what was going on and why. I saw cinematics that let me see the history of Link and the world where he lived.
Now I could see that the protagonist was a selfless character, risking everything for the greater good of everyone around him and people he hadn’t even met yet.
But as Link, I would fight, risking my life to change things back and bring hope to each area and people group by vanquishing Ganondorf’s evil influence. This had all the same elements of the original game and story…but it was different.
Knowing the Backstory
In my first encounter with Link I didn’t know he was fighting for the people of a foreign land. I didn’t know that he chose this life because of courage and justice. I didn’t know why he was there, or why he was doing it, and that made the experience a lot duller and had little impact on my life.
But in my second encounter with Link, I knew all those things. I watched them unfold. I was excited to see him grow stronger and get better equipment, all leading up to acquiring the Master Sword and the Triforce so that he could achieve his overall goals: save the princess, save Hyrule and defeat the prince of darkness. For JUSTICE!
Many of us wake up in our childhood or our teenage years and look around, head full of questions. Where are we? What is our purpose? Should we wander into a cave and take a sword from an old man? We have very little backstory, and we don’t know what should motivate us to do things.
Luckily, there are older men and women out there who can give us some wisdom more sage than “IT’S DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE.”
This Bible is not only your sword, but also that manual I didn’t have access to. It has your backstory, but also clues and insights about what lies ahead of you.
The Game of Life
So we can choose how to live our lives just like in the upcoming Breath of the Wild. We can go around like I did in my first game with no idea what is going on and accomplish great things with no weight to them. Or we can go in there and figure what is going on and why so that our actions mean something worthwhile.
This life can be fun. It can be exhilarating. It can be impactful on yourself and those around you. But the choice is up to you. Keep in mind that, just like for Link, having our manual or knowing the backstory doesn’t make the monsters disappear or make the puzzles simple to solve. And it certainly doesn’t provide a straight line to the end. But it does make the end so much more enriching to reach.
Which brings me back to my tattoo. It’s as a reminder of our shared backstory because – although it may symbolize an imaginary mythical item that a videogame avatar uses to save a place that only exists in programming code and audio-visual media – it also symbolizes God, his Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to me. So, when people notice the back of my hand and ask me either, “Is that a tattoo” or, “Is that from Zelda” I say, “Yes and here’s some backstory.”
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Thanks for reading Redeeming Culture. Ryan is a regular contributor and one-half of the 3D Podcast, and this story is all, as far as I can tell, absolutely true.
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